With exhibits at the GRAMMY Museum and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Derek Hess communicates his struggles with bipolar and alcohol through his drawings—and credits his dog for getting him through his darkest days.
If ever there were a way to tap into the human psyche and lay it bare for all to see, celebrated visual artist Derek Hess has found the key. Indeed, the mercurial emotions that pulse through his veins seemingly unfurl on paper, offering a rare glimpse into his personal struggles.
His trademark gestural ink drawings, many depicting fallen angels and the juxtaposition between light and dark, burst with such honest and raw emotion that they have resonated with fans around the world.
And while he has earned international acclaim for his iconic rock posters—he has works in permanent exhibitions at the Louvre, the GRAMMY Museum, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—Hess, 56, is not fazed by the fame and accolades; he’s simply using his art as his lifeline to cope with his bipolar disorder and alcohol addiction.
Though he showed promise as an artist early on, Hess would spend years trying to numb his pain in alcohol, while searching for his place in the world. It was only when he started working at his local watering hole, the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio, that he launched his prolific career. In the early 1990s, alternative ruled the music scene. While attending the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), where his late father Roy Hess was a professor, the younger Hess began booking bands to appear at the bar. Everyone from Green Day to The Jesus Lizard ended up on the bill. To publicize these events, Hess began drawing concert posters in vivid pen and ink, often with dark illustrations, playing off the genre and the bands’ names with his distinctive style.
People loved them.
“There was a resurgence with posters, and there were just a handful of us doing them—it was the perfect storm,” Hess recalls. “It exploded from that point.” He continued to book bands—often bands he liked—and would draw posters for their shows.
Hess had the ability to visually express the intense emotion of the post-hardcore, metal underground music scene. He also had a gift for conveying the raw intensity of the human experience—which, as it turned out, mirrored his own struggles—through his illustrations. His notoriety grew.
He would go on to create music posters for other well-known bands such as Pantera, Pink Floyd, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, the Ramones, and Soundgarden, among many others, before later expanding into the world of fine art, as well as silkscreen printing for his popular apparel line, Strhess.
Although his concert posters were getting praise at the time, his actions weren’t. Hess admits that he misused his reduced tuition—courtesy of his father being on the faculty—and didn’t feel the need to put the time in for his classes. He kept failing them.
In the award-winning autobiographical documentary Forced Perspective, Hess says he would show up for a class, do an assignment, and then not come back for another five weeks. Instead, he was drinking to numb the symptoms of extreme highs and lows.
“When I was 14, I took that first drink of alcohol, and it calmed me down,” he says. He kept drinking.
As he got older, he was misdiagnosed and treated for depression. “That brought the mania out because it was only treating part of the problem.”
Around 1994, when Hess was 30, he says that the mania was getting the best of him. He was dating a bunch of girls at the same time and spending beyond his means, all while being hostile and reckless.
“It got to be too much,” he says. When he saw his psychiatrist, Hess was diagnosed with having bipolar—a finding that he welcomed, relieved to finally learn what was really going on. “It was good to hear. I’ve got no problem with it,” he says. “Everybody’s got something.”
Throughout his life and career, Hess continued to struggle with alcoholism and even checked himself into rehab twice. He says his drinking, while a form of self-medication, just made everything worse.
Showing his emotions
Although sober now, the grim effects of his drinking are never far from memory. When he would drink, a deep depression would usually follow. So deep, he says, that he couldn’t create art at all—referring to a time about a decade ago when he was so depressed that he couldn’t even put pen to paper.
When manic, though, the opposite occurred; he couldn’t stop creating. Looking back, Hess says he realizes now that he was in such a state while crafting the work for his book Black, White and Red All Over, published in 2015, and featuring work Hess created in 2004–2005. “I made tons and tons of these little drawings with acrylics, and I was definitely in a mania when I was doing that,” he recalls. “I’d stay up all night drawing.”
Today, Hess successfully manages his symptoms through lifestyle and medication, and his artistry continues to communicate his experience of coping with mental health challenges.
In 2018, his book Derek Hess: 31 Days in May, a visual journal of mental illness and addiction was published. It’s a “beautiful and painful” look at mental health and addiction, with an image and description for each day in the month of May, 2017. The book explores the link between mental health and creativity, and touches upon topics like loneliness, relationships, and depression.
Hess has earned an expansive fan base. While he still has a loyal following from his music roots, he’s gained new enthusiasts from his foray into fine arts. Then there’s the phenomenon of people getting tattoos of his work, many of which depict the struggle of inner conflict. He met some of these fans while on his recent book tour.
“It was very humbling, and it was rewarding at the same time because I was seeing how my image impacted another person,” he explains. “My artwork meant enough to them that they put it on their bodies permanently.”
Hess still works every day—on his art and on himself. He lives in Euclid, that suburb of Cleveland where he got his start, with his dog, Rommel, his cat, Joe, and a handful of fish.
“I’m just doing art for art’s sake, and I focus in on the symptoms of mental illness,” he says. “That’s how I’m making a living at this point, and, knock wood, it will keep going that way.”
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Life tips from Derek Hess:
Check in with yourself Hess now understands that the kind of productivity generated from staying up all night creating is a sure sign that something is amiss, and he needs to check in with himself or his doctor. “I’ve got to be careful and check in with myself,” he says. “Am I just being creative or is this mania? With the meds I’m on now, it’s been creativity. But in the past, I had to be careful.”
Finding joy Hess says he works hard every day to find happiness in the smaller and mundane things in life. “I was really happy when I was grocery shopping and eggnog was in season—non-alcoholic, of course.”
Going fishin’ When it was still allowed, Hess enjoyed fishing behind the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “I loved it—Browns Stadium is right there and the Science Center. You see the rest of the skyline of the city. It was really cool to set my pole up and chill,” he says. He vows that he’s determined to find a new good fishing spot.
A Dog’s Life To relax, Hess enjoys the company of his Pomeranian mix, Rommel. “Playing with him really helps me to chill out.” To an audience Q&A a few years back, Hess answered a question as to how bad his depression got: “The only thing that really got me through it was my dog.… I had to take care of it.”
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